The bell tolls for thee, weak administrators

Roads must be fixed. They must also be paid for. All this work creates jobs. 

This was brought into sharp focus for me on a recent road trip to Mthatha. On the R58 towards Kokstad, there were several road-work stoppages aimed at improving the appalling roads in the former homeland of Transkei. Although these stop-and-gos were annoying and time-consuming for the driver, it was heartening to see the work being done.

What was also a delight to see was that some of the roadwork sites were manned by women. Seeing the sprawling villages along the roadside, I imagined that the wages earned by these women would feed many families in these otherwise desolate areas.

We are quick to whinge about ageing infrastructure but seem reluctant to pay for it, or rather have issues about how it should be paid for, as is the case of the Gauteng freeway improvement project, which will be managed through e-tolling.

It was after a meeting between alliance partners that Cosatu, which has been a vociferous opponent of the system, apparently persuaded the ANC that the introduction of e-tolls had to be postponed while alternative funding models were sought — all this just a few days before the system was to be activated.

This meeting came at the same time as a court action to prevent the system’s launch, which the roads agency and two departments, treasury and transport, were defending.

With its might in numbers and persuasive influence within the alliance, Cosatu has forced e-tolls off the road. For now. The courts have also stepped in to ensure that a review of e-tolls takes place.

Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi’s announcement — even before the ANC statement came out — that e-tolls would be postponed must have been a punch in the nose for Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. In February, during his budget speech, Gordhan told the nation in no uncertain terms that it had to pay for the Gauteng freeway improvement project. It was going to go ahead and he would not brook any of this civil-disobedience nonsense. We simply had to buck up and pay up.

One got the sense even then that he was dispatched to be the bearer of bad news, in line with his tough stance on how the public purse is managed.
It was a little like bullying, but at least he had taken a stand and made a decision, however unpopular, because sometimes that is what is required for leaders to be effective.

Since then, however, I have been struggling to decide whether the toing and froing by the transport department over this issue is a positive sign, in the sense that we can read it as a sign of a government that is responsive to public sentiment, which in turn means our democracy is vibrant and healthy, or whether it points to spinelessness on the part of those tasked with leading the improvement project.

I am not averse to the user-pays principle, as long as it is fair and equitable. It is the shoddiness, lack of transparency over pricing and the incoherence displayed by the authorities that is disdainful of the consumer and road user.

The opacity in regard to how these regulations would be implemented and policed is shocking and revealing. Sanral simply was not ready to proceed. With a week to go, it was not clear how exemptions for public transport such as buses and taxis would work. How could this be? It was clear that some of the regulations were also in contradiction to the National Consumer Act. One might have expected that, as Sanral raced towards the launch, it would have factored all that in and managed it well in advance. But no.

Now, to add fuel to the fire, reports in this newspaper indicate that the backtracking and seesawing may also be linked to leadership battles ahead of the ANC’s elective congress in Mangaung. This prompted a smart aleck I know to ponder whether Yeats’s rough beast, its hour come round at last, is slouching towards Mangaung to be born. I chuckled, although I think this kind of apocalyptic talk is a little exaggerated.

Last Saturday, the courts finally ruled on the matter, providing clarity on e-tolls. They were stopped and the court said a review was in order.
When the executive fails to take decisions, or makes poorly thought-out ones, it is the judiciary that steps in as the final arbiter on matters that in the domain of state administrators. That is good. It is a crucial function of our constitutional democracy that the three arms have oversight over each other to ensure that power is not abused.

Yet my concern is that more and more, of late, administrative matters are being decided by the courts.

It reflects poorly on the administration of state agencies. Should our administrators not have made certain that all the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed? If the basics were not in place, is this an administration we can trust?

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